Krapp's Last Tape

by Samuel Beckett

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Critical Evaluation

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One of the principal authors of the theater of the absurd, Samuel Beckett was born and grew up in Ireland, where he studied languages at Trinity College. As a young man he traveled to the Continent and eventually settled in Paris. Although Krapp’s Last Tape was originally written in English, he wrote most of his works first in French and translated them into English. Besides plays, Beckett wrote and published novels, shorter fiction, and poetry. During World War II he served as a member of the French resistance and had to go into hiding to survive. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969.

In Krapp’s Last Tape, an older man reviews his life and confronts his isolation and inability to love. Krapp’s failures as a human being are glaringly evident, but the audience may also identify with him. Like a mime or a circus clown, Krapp wrings his audience out with contrary emotions. He is laughable and pathetic, grotesque and human. Within the small framework of a one-act monologue, in the soiled comedic figure of Krapp, Beckett creates a complex reality. Describing Krapp’s Last Tape as absurdist theater is subject to interpretation. Unlike more extremely absurdist Beckett plays such as En attendant Godot (1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954) or “Fin de partie” (1957;“Endgame”), the play is fairly realistic. Krapp’s comic appearance and the way it contrasts with his sad life is, however, absurdist. Here is an ordinary human being who aspired to be a writer but with slight success, suffered the death of parents, and failed in love. He wrestled (not too vigorously) with alcoholism. He is experiencing a lonely old age and, to judge by the title of the play, will soon experience death. The circle of light in which he operates is a symbol of his existence, a tiny spot in a vast darkness.

Beckett chooses to picture Krapp as a down-at-heels clown. As a clown Krapp is absurd rather than tragic. The human condition, projected from Krapp’s example, is absurd. Through Krapp the audience sees the individual as a posturing little spark in time, soon extinguished. Krapp himself is uneasy and disgusted with this role. When he listens to his younger voice on tape speaking of a visionary night on a jetty, he becomes impatient and switches off the tape. Other than his drinking, only the fact that he replays the section of the tape dealing with the scene in the boat implies that Krapp is touched by a sense of loss. The audience never knows for sure what Krapp is feeling. To create the illusion of meaning Krapp begins his annual ritual of making a birthday tape, but this time he fails to find value in the exercise. He has nothing to add, for in the end his life has come to nothing. The “memorable equinox” turns out to have been the beginning of the end. Beckett uses the stark setting and the contrast between the spotlight in which Krapp moves and the darkness beyond to give a concrete representation of Krapp’s situation. The repetition of threes gives Krapp’s actions a ritualistic character. For example, he goes offstage three times to drink, and he looks at his watch three times. The audience is presented with Krapp at three different times in his life.

The play is set during “a late evening in the future.” It has been suggested that this avoids the anachronism of recording tape being available at an earlier date. Setting the play in the future also serves as an omen, imbuing the play with a mood of dark presentiment.

Krapp’s ceremonial recording of his own life, as if for some posterity never realized, is in some ways a parody of the writer’s life. His life work, however, turns out to be the taped version of his life, and he is both author and audience, a narcissistic circle. No wonder the play ends in silence as the blank portion of the tape unspools. The ending of the play is bleak, but it also has a cleansing stoicism. Krapp is a moving human figure.

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